** Disclaimer: more whiskey nerd stuff.**
If you’re like me, you sometimes find yourself in the whiskey aisle gazing somewhat disdainfully down at the bottom shelf. They’re all labels you’ve seen before – dirt cheap with comically dated graphics, all their names “Old This” or “Ancient That” or “Ye Olde Grandpap’s Straight Old Fashioned Style Very-Old Bourbon.” And if you, like me, wonder why these fiery dinosaurs continue to exist… well, turns out, some of them used to be pretty fucking good.
Southern California Whiskey Club:
Last week, Chris Uhde of the excellent Southern California Whiskey Club made stop down in San Diego to offer us a slice of whiskey fanaticism. Chris is a 7th degree black belt in Liquor Store Archaeology and makes a hobby of unearthing forgotten, dusty bottles hidden behind armies of Hiram Walker sugar-syrup on crusty aluminum shelves. His ability to host tastings like this one stems exclusively from this ability – he finds them, buys them, and then shares them with us.
Tax Stamps were proof of taxes paid, a thin whitish strip over the cap of bourbon (doubling as a tamper-proof seal), and were federally mandated until 1985. So generally speaking, “Tax Stamp bourbons” are bourbons bottled at least 27 years ago. Whiskey isn’t like wine – it doesn’t change once it’s in the bottle. So these tastings are both rare and valuable, because these bottles are essentially time capsules. How does our bourbon today compare to what they were drinking 30 or 40 years ago?
I’ll present them as we had them, in pairs of two. The reason for this is because I believe it’s extremely difficult, maybe even impossible, to taste things out of context. What something has next to it will greatly inform how that thing tastes, and while one should continue to aspire to objective tasting, I’m not sure it’s possible.
This is also why I’ll occasionally use terms like “tastes like ass.” I find them descriptive.
First Round: Antique (1970s) vs. Yellowstone (1976)
Antique came from the Athertonville distillery, closed in 1980, and seems to have been a pretty good product. Yellowstone was a fantastically popular bourbon in the 60s and 70s, from the Glenmore distillery, which closed in 1991. They continue to produce it at Heaven Hill, but no one cares.
1. Antique 6-year – 80 proof – from 1970s
Nose is heavy caramel and molasses, indicative of a corn-heavy mashbill. Palate confirms: there’s a graininess, a kind of hay-ish grain, and a strong note of maple. Add a few drops of water and the graininess more or less goes away, replaced with a harder maple note, which now evokes French toast and butterscotch.
This is surprisingly good. I like the heavy hitting sweet notes. Long maple finishes are pleasant.
2. Yellowstone 4 year – 86 proof – from 1976
Softer than the Antique, despite higher proof and younger age. A bit fruity with sweet spice. More maple notes, but again, softer. Delicate for such a young product.
Interesting. I can see why this was Kentucky’s best selling bourbon in the 1960s. It’s not terribly mature or complex, but it is hazardously drinkable.
Second Round: Old Crow (1976-1978) vs. Old Crow (2013)
The Old Crow is an interesting story: Old Crow was, at one time, the best selling bourbon in the United States. Something happened in the 60s to alter the recipe – no one really talks about it, but the rumors point to a production mistake that money-hungry owners never cared to fix – and the brand, while still a competitor to Jim Beam, never recovered. So when National Brands unloaded Old Crow in 1987, Jim Beam bought it, and set about to more or less ruin it so Beam would look better by comparison. It is now their bottom shelf, essentially a 3-year old Jim Beam.
3. Old Crow – 80 proof – from 1976-1978
There’s a hot corn punch to the nose, whose volume is turned a little down to on the palate, but not that much. Thick mouthfeel, gives a corn blast on the palate. Like a less-good Buffalo Trace. A few drops of water lead to harder caramel notes but it’s still very dry. Textured and bitter.
This is no prize or anything, but it’s way better than the shit they’re bottling now.
4. Old Crow 3 year – 80 proof – from 2013
Big ugly rye graininess. “A slice of ass,” our table mate posited. A little fruity, a little minty. Raw oak. Young. Hot. This tastes like what it is: a bourbon not good enough to call itself “Jim Beam.”
I’m pretty sure I’ve worse had bourbon than this, but it’s hard to remember when.
Third Round: Old Taylor (1982-1984) vs. Old Taylor (1977)
Old Taylor was sold in 1972 to Jim Beam, who didn’t exactly shit on it the way they did Old Crow, but who turned it into a Beam product. But, it was then, as now, a six-year old bourbon, so bottled in 1977, it would’ve still been Old Taylor distillery juice.
*** EDIT – 5/7/16: Some very informed stranger corrected me in the comments: Old Taylor was distilled at the National Distiller’s Castle Distillery until 1972, at which point the distillery was shuttered (too much fine bourbon, not enough people drinking it. Imagine that.) From here, people disagree: Two people are saying Beam bought Castle Distillery in 1972 and shuttered it (but continued to use warehouse space), while Chuck Cowdry says ND closed it themselves, and didn’t sell it to Beam until 1987. In all such matters it’s best to believe Chuck Cowdry.
So, it appears that National Distillers didn’t sell the brand to Beam until 1987. So while the two Old Taylor’s were different proofs and from different distilleries, they were both National Distillers products I guess. Thanks informed stranger! ***
5. Old Taylor 6-year – 86 proof – from 1982-1984
Smells like a Beam product. On the palate, it’s a little hot, not only with alcohol but with cinnamon as well – hot like Red-Hots. A tangled midpalate and a curious note of raspberries leads to long, maple-sugar finish. With a bit of water, the heat changes, becomes expressiveness.
With a spot of water, this is actually pretty good.
6. Old Taylor 6-year – 80 proof – from 1977.
Similar, but with the volume turned down. The rye is expressive, but the flavors don’t pop – it stops short of the heights. Less amplitude. Caramel spice. Rye. Straight-forward.
A totally acceptable, if a bit uninteresting, bourbon. It clocks in a couple degrees lower than the other Taylor, and it tastes like it could benefit from a bit more heat. I actually prefer the
Beam product later product. Imagine my surprise.
Fourth Round: Old Grandad (2013) vs. Old Grandad (1977)
When the Old Grandad distillery closed and the brand was sold to hungry-hungry brand hippo Jim Beam, Beam tried their best to keep everything the same. Same mashbill, same distilling numbers, same entry proof, etc… basically, the exact opposite of what they did to Old Crow. Tasting it, it’s clear they were not successful.
7. Old Grandad – 86 proof – from 2013
On the nose: big rye punch. Rye graininess and almost fruity flavors. This is more or less confirmed on the palate, at least in the front palate: it comes first rye-forward, and then a powerful caramel note I didn’t see coming on the nose takes it all the way home.
Not a bad product, and a good value for the not-very-much money it costs, but I’m still not buying a bottle.
8. Old Grandad – 86 proof – from 1977
Nose: complex. Corn and rye both. Caramel spice, and a strange and alluring note of dried fruit (raisins). Once sipped, the dried fruit becomes more apparent – this tastes a little like rum, or some wonderful mixture of rum and whiskey. The mysterious Rumisky. Vanilla adds to dried fruit. Cognac notes. Tastes like it was rum cask finished.
Wow. Clear winner of the night. I want to drink this all the time.
Fifth Round: Early Times (2013) vs. Early Times (1982)
Early Times uses both new and used barrels, and as such legally prohibited from calling itself a bourbon (bourbon must be only new barrels). It was a bourbon in the 80s though, and so a direct comparison is mildly unfair, but it’s fun to see what it was.
9. Early Times – 80 proof – from 2013
This smells rubbery, inorganic. Not much else – used barrels give less flavor, and this is evident in the lightness of the final product. Very mild. A little like Seagrams 7 or something, but a little hot. Evokes wet paper.
My thoughts best expressed as a quote from our host, when someone remarked to him that this tastes like hot, dirty water: “What is this — $7.99 a bottle? They’re not selling this to bourbon drinkers. They’re selling this to alcoholics.”
10. Early Times – 80 proof – from 1982
This is a bourbon – it smells rich (especially comparatively so) with corn sweetness. This continues on the palate and is added to by the type of lighter, ethereal flavors a lower proof encourages: coconut; marshmallows; toast.
Comparatively this is the cat’s fucking meow, but I’m not ready to call it great. It’s a solid, entry level bourbon, and more than anything (just like all of these, really), it’s a fun look at the genealogy of the brand.